If you're in or approaching middle age and were raised on
ear-splitting concerts by bands such as Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin,
today you might find hearing loss an unwelcome fact of life. More often than
you'd like, you may strain to hear conversations and music that once were as
clear and pure as a Santana riff. Whereas you used to be able to hear a pin
drop -- quite literally -- you now might find yourself coping with hearing loss
at a younger age than you imagined possible, asking people to repeat themselves
and making a habit of saying "pardon?"
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For the Woodstock generation, hearing is no longer something to
take for granted. About 28 million Americans have hearing loss, and according
to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), it occurs among
adults of all ages. In fact, the prevalence of hearing loss among younger men
and women is on the rise. About 14% of people between ages 45 and 64 have
hearing loss (an increase of 26% in this age group since 1971). And as the baby
boomers continue to age, the incidence of hearing loss is expected to grow.
Missing Out on Life
The scenario is much too common -- and often too painful -- for
men and women in their 40s and 50s. They might sit silently at dinner parties,
having difficulty following the conversation. They may feel completely lost
when attending the theater, straining to hear what the actors are saying.
Specialists in assessing hearing loss, whose waiting rooms were
once filled primarily with the elderly, are now routinely treating people who
otherwise consider themselves to be in the prime of life. "I see much
younger people in my office who have 'notches' in their hearing that we know
come from noise exposure," says audiologist Angela Loavenbruck, EdD,
immediate past president of the American Academy of Audiology. These so-called
noise "notches," which show up on the graph of a hearing test called an
audiogram, can indicate a sharp drop in hearing ability.
"I recently treated a drummer who is constantly exposed to
very loud music," says Loavenbruck, who is in private practice in New City,
N.Y. "He has absolutely normal hearing across most frequencies, but at
about a 2,000 or 4,000 cycle tone, his hearing takes a sharp drop. We see the
same thing in many people exposed to workplace noise."
In their 20s, these individuals might not notice any hearing
loss, even though they may have already begun to experience damage within the
inner ear. But by the middle years, says Loavenbruck, the hearing loss may
become progressively more noticeable and significant.
Louder Isn't Better
A history of listening to rock music is only one of the
window-rattling noise hazards that people in middle age have been encountering
for decades. Today's world presents much more of a noisy free-for-all than any
previous generation ever faced -- blaring police sirens, ear-shattering power
tools, head-splitting hairdryers, and the ever-present Walkman-type personal
stereos. Over time, their bombing and strafing can wreak cumulative havoc on
the inner ear's 20,000-plus sensory receptors (or hair cells), causing
permanent hearing loss.